When Maryland football trots onto the Memorial Stadium field in Champaign, Illinois surrounded by a crush of orange-clad Illini zealots, it’ll be a familiar scene for coach Mike Locksley.
He was an offensive assistant at Illinois from 2005 to 2008, including a three-year stint as offensive coordinator. That gig launched him up the coaching ranks, and though Locksley left after the 2008 season, he retains a close bond to Champaign.
Thirteen years later, Locksley is set to return to Illinois for the first time since he worked there. But now, he’s in enemy territory.
“It was a special opportunity,” Locksley said. “We were able to do some exciting things there.”
Locksley’s path from Champaign to College Park likely would not have been possible without Ron Zook. The latter brought Locksley on as an assistant when he was named head coach of the Fighting Illini in 2005.
The pair crafted an offensive attack that guided Illinois from bottomfeeders to Cinderellas, culminating in a shock Rose Bowl run during the 2007 season. Locksley left the following year but remained close with Zook.
When Locksley was named Maryland’s head coach in 2019, one of his first calls was to Zook. The former bench boss signed on as an analyst and has since been promoted to the Terps’ special teams coordinator.
“[I’m] not surprised that a guy like Ron Zook would give me that opportunity at 36 years old,” Locksley said. “But again, those things are in the past.”
The rest of the team, however, is less familiar with the Illini. Maryland has yet to visit Champaign as a program, and the only player on the Terps’ roster with ties to the state is Chicago native Johari Branch.
The sides have only met one other time, too, which ended in a 63-33 Maryland thrashing of Illinois in 2018.
“It’ll be a fun experience getting to go up there,” tight end Chig Okonkwo said.
It’s also the first true road game with fans since November 2019. For many of the young Terps, it’ll be their first time in front of a rabid opposing fanbase, as most of them were in high school or on the bench the last time they played to a crowd jeering its hardest.
The unfamiliar environment could prove tricky for Maryland, even with its talent advantage — but the Terps won’t change their approach.
“You’re just going there and playing the game. Nothing different,” linebacker Ruben Hyppolite said.
Locksley is one of the few familiar with the frenzy on the plains. Though it’s been more than a decade since he’s stepped foot on Zuppke Field, it shouldn’t take too long for him to get resettled.
After all, his time with the Illini helped set Locksley’s career in motion, indirectly leading him to his spot Friday night. And when he gets there, Locksley will be home.
“[It’s] obviously a … special place,” Locksley said. “Champaign-Urbana, to me, is, next to Maryland, a place my kids call home.”